91 Northampton, MA: What Am I Doing Here?

Pretty Penny was painted in Nyack but ended up in Northampton because a Smith alumna donated it. How Hopper's paintings ended up where they did is interesting to consider. I think that his paintings were accessible to nontraditional art collectors. They show everyday subjects and scenes, not blobs like Jackson Pollock.

Another thing in Hopper's favor was that his paintings were affordable in his lifetime and shortly after because his kind of realism was out of favor with art buyers at that time. An interesting subculture is those who need to collect anything, especially art. (One gallery owner confided, "I have been in the collector's circle. I was dealing with art collectors, and, for some, it becomes a life and not just a hobby. They all are trying to scam each other. They want to put their name in front of a painting's name.") The art buyers dictate the price of a painting, but not the value. Nighthawks has always had a grip on the American psyche. But art buyers were convinced that an abstract painting or unmistakable Van Gogh was worth more. Now, Hopper's paintings fetch top price.(1)

Perhaps the most telling example of how his paintings ended up where they did is provided by a lesser work in a less well known museum. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has November, Washington Square. The painting has two dates: 1932 and 1959. That is because he started it long before he finished it. He finished in the year that one of the museum's great patrons was on an art-buying spree in New York. I can't help but think that Hopper's dealer called him and asked him for a canvas, any canvas, and Hopper picked out an old one already half done and finished it quickly in hopes of a sale.

Another great story is Wichita's collection. It includes some of the finest works of certain individuals, including Hopper's Conference at Night and Sunlight on Brownstones. The buyer was Elizabeth Stubblefield Navas, the former interior designer for the wife of the man for whom the collection is named: Roland P. Murdock. She inherited the money and his charge to keep buying good art and sending it back to Wichita. One local art insider told me he thought Murdock wanted to force-feed high art to the lowbrow plains people whether they wanted it or not.

Many of Hopper's buyers were similarly nouveau riche. In West Palm Beach, the buyer was named Ralph Norton (like a merging of the characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners"), and his business bore the cartoon-worthy name "Acme Steel." Neuberger in Purchase was a self-made millionaire. And Helen Hayes gained fame through theater. But many other buyers were old wealth. Stephen Clark was heir to the Singer Sewing Machine money. Edward Root was son of Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State.

So in many ways, Hopper pleased people of all walks of life. Only those with money could actually buy his paintings. But the range of buyers shows that he was not only a painter of everyman, but also bought by everyman.

(1) Addendum September 21, 2008: I saw a great movie over the weekend: Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? It's about a female truck driver who buys a painting that may be a Jackson Pollock. A noted forensic scientist finds strong evidence that it is: a fingerprint matching one on Pollock's paint cans in his studio; dust on the canvas that matches dust from his studio; etc. Yet the art world refuses to believe that it is a Pollock or (more importantly) even consider that it might be a Pollock. A most telling moment is when a former bigwig at the Met says that art world opinion is worth more than scholarship or science. Also tellingly, a Wall Street investor says that the painting would have more chance of selling if it were signed, even if the signature were a fraud!

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